Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: March 2010, 17

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

09:25:00 pm , 1184 words, 3860 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie


I just got to see the French feature-length production U (2006) directed by Serge Elissalde and written and designed by Gregoire Solotareff. A few adjectives that immediately spring to mind to describe this delightful film: fresh, bright, meandering, relaxed, tender.

There's no other feature-length animated film quite like it. Rather than being plot-driven, it feels like we're just following around a group of characters for a while, a la Robert Altman. This film doesn't so much tell a story as develop a group of interesting characters and create vividly colored compositions for them to casually meander through. In the very laid-back world of U, the characters' only occupation seems to be sleeping, eating, singing, dancing and exchanging witty banter.

It's pleasant company to spend an hour with, and certainly leaves you feeling less exhausted than two spent being dragged around by some convoluted plot and overdone animation. I felt really good after watching this film. It's a calming film that makes you happy watching it.

The animation and overall approach to the visuals here is quite unlike any other feature you're likely to see, very 'indie' feeling. Like most of the best animated films I've seen over the last few years, they don't follow any school of filmmaking, but create a world and storytelling style entirely their own. France has for decades been a reliable source of beautiful, artistic, independent-minded feature-length animation, and U is yet another to add to that list alongside past glories like Gwen et le Livre de Sable.

The characters are cartoonish anthropomorphic animals, some real (cat, rat), some mythical (unicorn) and some, like the protagonist princess, shown above, seemingly invented. The character designs are basic and sparely detailed, each having its own distinct outline and flat color. The lines are thick and wobbly and uncertain, and the drawings look hand-drawn in the extreme, even somewhat sloppy or casual. It's a style you'd expect to see in an independent short, not a feature film. From scene to scene you can identify animator baton-touches, as the character drawings and animation style changes slightly, which is great if, like me, you appreciate seeing different animators' approaches left intact in the final product. It's subtle, though, and most people probably won't notice.

Despite the animation being almost crude compared to the likes of Disney or Chomet, I feel the animation brings the characters alive well and works with the film's visual ethos. There's plenty of inventiveness on display in the planning and timing of the characters' actions without needing to hire 40 people to animate each character. I actually prefer scene-based animator allocation such as this, because it feels more personal, so it's great to see it being used outside of Japan. The style of the character animation and storytelling actually remind me a lot of one of my favorite obscure animated movies of the 2000s, The Boy who wanted to be a bear, a Danish-French film from 2002 directed by Jannik Hastrup.

There are a number of impressive 'show-off' scenes in the vein of the lovemaking and dancing sequences in Mind Game, where the animator in charge was left to have fun with the material and be as inventive as possible, and these are quite lovely to behold - I'd almost say worth the price of admission alone, but the rest of the film is worth it. I usually hate this kind of thing, but as in Mind Game, this is an example of how how to do it right without being tacky and annoying.

The backgrounds are riotously colorful watercolor explosions depicting an unnaturalistic, pleasingly garish storybook landscape. I spent much of the film's runtime happily basking in one marvelously beautiful composition after another. The backgrounds have a storybook quality reminding of Dr Seuss, and are also drawn in the same wobbly style as the characters.

The plot isn't the only ephemeral thing; we're told next to nothing about this strange world the characters inhabit, who these characters are, or how they got there. Only the merest hint is dropped when the unicorn named 'U' mentions in passing that the only animals left in the forest are the birds because a tsunami swept away all the inhabitants long ago. It's a fantasy land with a hint of post-apocalypse.

Aside from the relaxed atmosphere and sensuous visuals, the characters are fun to watch intermingle and develop. The dialogue is casual and real and subtly witty in a very French way. The interactions are believable and the conversations exude a kind of bohemian levity, without going overboard and being too self-aware.

A carnivalesque, laissez faire atmosphere reigns in the gypsy camp: they lounge about by day, and party by night. The dark, drab grayness of the sullen rats' castle is contrasted with the warm hues of the world outside - the vivid yellow of the princess, the red-orange of the forest, the variously colored gypsies.

I've long been a fan of the great Sanseverino, a French singer of Django Reinhardt-style Tzigane music, and it was a delight to find him here playing the role of, well, himself, in this film. He's the cat in the hat who leads the gypsy band with his song and guitar. There actually is a very definite theme and story to the film. The theme is closely tied to Sanseverino's character and music. It doesn't feel like there's a story being bashed over your head; it's just there, developing quietly and slowly.

Without going into specifics (because knowing anything would ruin much of the fun of exploring this very appealing world), the story serves up a universal coming-of-age fable that will touch a chord in everyone. The princess starts out as a lonely little girl with no friends or siblings who needs to depend on her imagination for comfort. Her interactions with these outsiders reveal to her that she has to put her past behind her and open up to new meetings and experiences in order to finally be able to become an adult and a woman. Sanseverino's gypsy guitarist provides the key to that transformation.

There are scenes of intimacy between the princess and the guitarist late in the film that are lovely to watch. They're candid and delicate about the two lovers' innocence, but also quite frank about the lust that drives them together. U is one of the few animated films I've seen that creates scenes of closeness and tenderness that don't feel like mere stock 'movie romance'.

The image of the famous Unicorn tapestries appears at one point in the film in a beautifully animated sequence, reinterpreted with Sanseverino's cat in the guise of the hunter. Behind the naif facade of cute animals and bright colors, this is a smart film that conceals layers of meaning not immediately apparent. I like this film because it shows that it's possible to make cute films for children that are meaningful and intelligent without having to stoop to being saccharine or insulting or facile. Children will enjoy U, while from my perspective as an adult, it functions on the same level as a book like The Little Prince: a fable for adults.